Dooley asks council to place Metro sales tax before voters

Dooley’s request a surprise, 6th District councilman says

By EVAN YOUNG

As the Metro transit agency hashes out its long-term vision for the region, the County Council is considering legislation that asks voters to help fund it.

County Executive Charlie Dooley last week requested legislation to place a half-cent transportation sales-tax referendum on the April 6 ballot. The bill was scheduled to be introduced Tuesday โ€” after the Call went to press.

If it’s successful, the measure would generate roughly $80 million annually for Metro, depending upon the economic climate.

In November 2008, more than 51 percent of county voters rejected Proposition M, a ballot measure similar to the one currently in the works. Prop M received 264,255 “no” votes and 248,338 “yes” votes.

After Prop M’s defeat, the Metro Board of Commissioners voted to increase rider fares, cut hundreds of jobs and eliminate one-third of its MetroLink, MetroBus and Call-A-Ride service to combat financial problems.

Service cuts took effect in March, but millions of dollars in one-time stimulus funds and federal grant money helped the agency restore a number of routes in August. However, Metro officials have said the temporary restoration plan will end next May unless a more permanent funding source is secured.

Besides maintaining restored service, agency officials have said additional funding is needed to proceed with Metro’s long-term, public-driven plan to expand and enhance transit service throughout the region.

The effort will establish five-, 10- and 30-year service benchmarks for Metro, but needs stable financial support at the local, state and federal level to work, officials have said.

Metro already receives annual county funding through two primary sources: 50 percent of the revenue from a half-cent transportation sales tax that dates back to 1973, and revenue from another, quarter-cent sales tax that county voters approved as Proposition M in 1993, half of which is used for operations and half is set aside for future expansion.

The other 50 percent of the 1973 half-cent sales tax funds road repairs.

Last year, the county gave Metro $39.5 million of the roughly $77.3 million collected from the half-cent sales tax. This year’s appropriation still is undetermined because of economic instability.

However, Dooley is recommending Metro’s 2010 quarter-cent sales-tax appropriation be reduced by 8.3 percent due to decreased collections.

While the agency is budgeted to receive $41.3 million this year, Dooley’s proposed budget reduces that amount to $37.9 million in 2010.

Supporters of a new transit sales tax already have formed a campaign committee, Advance St. Louis, which filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission in September. In addition, the St. Louis County Municipal League voted recently to endorse the proposition.

But 6th District Councilman Steve Stenger, D-south county, told the Call last week he hadn’t taken a position on the latest sales-tax proposal. He said news of Dooley’s request “came as a bit of a surprise.”

“I received a call last Friday, and that call was a bit of a surprise being that we just had this in November of 2008 and it was turned down by the voters,” Stenger said, adding that Prop M was “overwhelmingly turned down” by south county voters.

“Just like any other issue that comes before me, I’m giving it consideration, and I’m certainly looking to hear from voters who are either in support of it or against it …,” he said. “I’ll definitely be looking for input. I do need some time to think about it and get some input before I make a decision.”